NHL

Analyzing the Blues’ options as losing streak hits a franchise-record 8 games: Trade pending UFAs? Coaching change?

Analyzing the Blues’ options as losing streak hits a franchise-record 8 games: Trade pending UFAs? Coaching change?

Dom Luszczyszyn was wrong. The Blues aren’t a 92.2-point team, as The Athletic’s analytics guru’s model projected they’d be in the preseason. They are a 44.7 point team, or at least that’s their current pace.

Our guy, Dom, took some heat for his projection, and that was understandable considering the Blues put up 109 points in 2021-22, won their first-round series against Minnesota and, in the second round, gave eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado a bit of a fit.

But this season has been unlike what anyone expected.

The Blues’ losing streak hit eight straight games in regulation — the longest in team history — with a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday. They’ve been outscored 32-8 during the skid.

With the season in such peril so early, I reached out to Luszczyszyn, as well The Athletic national writer Sean Gentille and an NHL scout, in search of their analysis of the situation as it has evolved, as well as what the team’s options could be if this downward spiral continues.

What does Dom think now?

Here’s what Dom said, in his own words (note: stats are prior to Tuesday’s game):

As St. Louis’ playoff hopes crumble early from 54 percent to start the season to … gulp … about 12 percent, it’s no time for a victory lap. It’s still early, even for a team that looks like a shell of its former self, so it’s a time better suited as a learning experience.

The Blues are not nearly as bad as their current record. But they were never as good as last season’s record either. They were not a 109-point team. The point of having a model is finding the “real” number, and for the Blues that looked like a team that was a bit above average — not elite. Many parts of that team remain, and it’s why it’s not time to panic completely just yet. But it is time to accept the reality that the Blues, in fact, were not as good as advertised.

Last season’s team had two things going for it: It outscored its problems at five-on-five, and it had excellent special teams. Right now, this team is doing neither.

At five-on-five, the Blues had a 49 percent expected-goals rate last season and scored 54 percent of the goals. This team has strong finishers, so an uptick over expected was to be, well, expected. They are scoring on 5.7 percent of their shots rather than 10.3 percent. Last season’s number was a bit too high, but this season’s have been way too low. They will regress, especially if they keep creating a similar amount of chances … just not to last season’s level. The bigger issue is on defense, as the team’s problems have cascaded, going from 2.65 expected goals against per 60 minutes allowed to 2.85. That means their expected-goals percentage is a bit worse than last season’s slightly below-average number, now sitting at 46 percent … only this time the percentages aren’t there. Last season, St. Louis was five percentage points above expected. This season, to start, the Blues are 12 percentage points below.

On this team, that won’t last — not to this degree anyways. But what we’re now getting is a fuller picture of where this team should be, dating back to last season. Over 92 games, St. Louis is at 52 percent of the goals rather than 54.

Perhaps the larger issue is special teams. Many figured the power play would take a hit without David Perron, and that’s exactly what’s come to be: one fewer expected goal per 60 minutes and three fewer actual goals per 60. The Blues should convert on more of their chances, but even if they do, they aren’t creating as many, which is a concern. As for the penalty kill … woof. Twice as many goals allowed is a huge issue, but even more alarming is that it’s deserved. Last season’s team gave up 5.8 goals per 60 off 6.7 expected goals per 60. This season, both numbers have ballooned, to 11.7 and 11.4 respectively. The worst expected goals against per 60 in the analytics era is 8.74 by last season’s Jets, so expect the team to improve in that regard, because no team is that bad. But it’s still a major problem area.

So what’s wrong here? Everything. And that shows with the ol’ eye test where this team has seemingly lost its swagger in every area of the ice. The good news is we know this team has the talent to turn it around and it’s not too late to do so (the 2018-19 team had 10 percent playoff odds at its lowest point, for the record).

The bad news? The models might have been right that it’s not as much talent as many figured. So while it might not be too late, this team is running out of time quicker than anyone could’ve ever imagined — even the most pessimistic critics.

What are the options?

With that as the backdrop from Dom, let’s look at the Blues’ options. There are six ways general manager Doug Armstrong could go, but half of them aren’t likely.

He could do nothing, but that wouldn’t go over well. He could call up players from the AHL, but there’s not enough talent to help. He could make a trade to bolster the lineup, but what faith has the current group given him to do that?

So, it could boil down to these three …

1. Make a coaching change

If there was any question about whether the Blues plan to dump Craig Berube as a result of this slide, Armstrong attempted to put that to rest last week.

“I believe in the coach; I believe in the system,” he said. “This isn’t a system issue; it’s a competitive issue. What I wanted to assure Craig (is that) he has to be part of the solution. He’s not removed from this, but he’s not the reason that we’re here. But he is the reason that we’re going to get out of it, and I’ve got a ton of faith in him.”

The Blues have gone 0-3 since Armstrong made that comment, though, and while he wouldn’t be the first GM in history to reverse course, there’s been no indication from the organization that Berube is in trouble.

In addition to the Blues’ confidence in Berube, he is in the first season of a three-year contract that he signed last February. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the deal is worth around $3.5 million per year, so the club would be paying him $7 million-plus to go away.

No doubt the season has gone completely sideways, and questions about Berube’s status will become more and more warranted if this continues, but it appears that it would have to drag on a little longer for a coaching move to happen.

2. Trade pending UFAs

The Blues have seven players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next summer, but only two of them would actually alter the look of things if they were traded: Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly.

One of them, Tarasenko, is playing well. The other, O’Reilly, not so much.

After his 82-point season, Tarasenko has four goals and nine points in 11 games. According to one scout, who spoke to The Athletic on the condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak publicly, the consensus in the scouting community is that there would be interest in Tarasenko if he’s made available. That’s because of his scoring ability, and, in fact, it’s surprising there hasn’t been more interest since his trade request. In terms of being engaged, Tarasenko can go in and out, but when he’s on, he’s good. If you need a right winger to give you some goals, he’s a guy who can put you over the top. And with it being the last year of his contract, there isn’t a lot of commitment.

As far as O’Reilly, despite his struggles this season, with just two goals and no assists in 11 games, he would also be sought-after. Every team could use a player like him, because he’s a center and because of his Selke/Conn Smythe pedigree. He hasn’t produced this season, but part of that could be not having Perron around, along with Jordan Kyrou’s struggles. At age 31, this could be part of a downward slide individually, but he’s still a proven player who, with a couple of consistent linemates, could be counted on.

So trading Tarasenko and O’Reilly, along with another pending UFA, like Ivan Barbashev, is a possibility. The problem is that it’s only November. Teams will be keeping an eye on players who might be available at some point, but it’s probably too early in the season for clubs to make those types of moves, which means the Blues could be left waiting for a while.

3. Start the rebuild

Of course, if Armstrong decides that he’s going to start unloading players, that could mean a rebuild, in which players on multi-year contracts could be considered for trades as well. There are 10 who have a term that goes beyond the 2022-23 season — some with a lot of term left — and that could make moving them difficult.

What does Gentille think about these potential assets and who might want to have them?

(Several of the players currently have full-no trade clauses that turn into modified clauses later in the contract).

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

31

$6.5 million

2028

Full no-trade

Gentille: There’s tons to like about Brayden Schenn, and that’s always been the case. I always felt (outside St. Louis, at least) that he didn’t get quite enough shine for that Cup run. He’s also done well to maintain his production in the face of injuries and a team-wide drop in underlying numbers. If you throw out the 56-game 2020-21 season, his points per 60 have gone up in each of the past six seasons. Plus he’s tough as hell and has positional versatility. I’ll take Schenn on my hockey team.

I will not, however, take him on my hockey team at that number or that term, and I think that’d be the case for most of the league this season. The full no-trade only makes it more complicated. Now, if St. Louis could work around that, then retain a bit of salary, maybe an in-season move would be more palatable. Otherwise, this would be one to revisit in the summer. As the cap increases, interest in players like Schenn — still productive, on the back end of their primes, signed a little too long for a little too much — will increase, too.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

27

$5.8 million

2025

Modified no-trade (12 teams)

Gentille: His start has been rough — he’s missed games and only put up two points in the six he’s played — but I’m still bullish on Pavel Buchnevich getting it together. There was substance to his 30-goal season, which was something a lot of folks, Doug Armstrong included, expected after the Blues acquired him. He’s a good bet to get it together, and thus a good player to hold onto. St. Louis knows the dangers of selling low on this guy. If they’re hellbent on moving out everyone, he’d have a ton of value. I wouldn’t mind seeing him head back to the Metro and ride shotgun for, say, Mathew Barzal or Jack Hughes/Nico Hischier.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

30

$4.5 million

2026

Full no-trade

Gentille: Brandon Saad is a name-brand middle-six guy at this point in his career, and those guys are always candidates to be overpaid. They also tend to retain their trade value. Saad has Cup bona fides and a bunch of 20-goal seasons on his resume. Four years is a long time, though, and probably would stop St. Louis from bringing back all that much. Still, if the Blues retain a little or make a reasonable ask, I can see Saad finding a buyer at basically any time. The sooner the better, though. He’s one of the older 30-year-olds you’re going to find.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

24

$8.125 million

2031

None

Gentille: I’m aware that Jordan Kyrou, just after signing his megadeal, is leaving something to be desired. Still, it’s impossible to imagine Armstrong pulling the chute a couple of months in, right? Trust that Berube will help Kyrou grow as a defensive player, and trust that Kyrou’s wild offensive skill shines through. He’s still a building block with a ton of upside. And even if he doesn’t max out his potential, he’s still a good bet to deliver value through his 20s under a rising salary cap. He’s a player you rebuild around, whether he’s a finished product or not.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

23

$8.125 million

2031

None

Gentille: Everything we said about Kyrou, times two. Leave him alone. We’re a couple of years away from players like Thomas costing $11 million a season.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

30

$6.5 million

2027

Full no-trade

Gentille: Save for a weird blip on the radar a couple of years back, Justin Faulk has been a good player for a long time. For me, he’s ideally a No. 3 on a top team — he does heavy lifting on the breakout and is reliably solid on zone entries, according to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data. That scans for anyone who watches him. Last season, he matched a career peak in terms of offensive production, which should goose his value a bit. The salary is fine — it’s the length that might scare some teams off. If he were a rental, I’d say to flip him for a second- and third-rounder. As it stands, I’m not sure whether the contract helps the Blues or hurts them, but it could certainly be worse. If Armstrong decides to get crazy, I’d call Pierre Dorion and the Ottawa Senators … like, now. “Here’s your top-four right shot.”

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

31

$6.5 million

2027

Full no-trade

Gentille: If I were the Blues, I’d be very concerned with Torey Krug’s player profile, where he falls on the aging curve and how much they’re paying him. Too much of his value stems from power-play points. This has always been true, but as he gets farther into his 30s, it’s easy to imagine the five-on-five numbers continuing to decline. And nobody wants a $6.5 million specialist. If Armstrong is committed to a rebuild and were to have a prospective deal on the table for Krug, I’d do it tomorrow. Again, though, the full no-trade thing is a problem.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

29

$6.5 million

2030

Full no-trade

Gentille: When we did our NHL Player Tiers at the start of the season, we ultimately included Colton Parayko in the Top 100. He might’ve been the last player to get the stamp. Way back in mid-September, we felt like it was fair to classify him as an “overextended No. 1.” That still seems to apply. It’s too early to draw a ton of conclusions on whether his game has appreciably changed, but he’s still easy to buy as a win-now guy with an enticing skillset. The deal probably won’t age well — last season was a little concerning on that front — but were he to hit the market, Armstrong’s phone would be ringing. I’d be fine with him at that number for a few years, especially if I was gunning for a title. Worry about 2028 in 2028.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade Protection

31

$4 million

2026

Full no-trade

Gentille: Is that too much to pay Nick Leddy? Yeah, but Armstrong was stuck between a rock and a hard place on that one. He should be trying to get out of this one, though. Leddy is a top-four defenseman on the Blues but not on many other contenders. Now, NHL GMs always love defensemen who can skate. And Leddy has been on good teams before. I’d find the best deal possible without retaining salary and hope Leddy is OK with the destination.

Player Age AAV Contract expires Trade protection

29

$6 million

2027

Full no-trade

Gentille: If Matt Murray got traded, anything is possible — and Jordan Binnington, as uneven as he’s been the past couple of years, is a better goalie than Murray, post-2017. Can we find a comparable there? Not really. Ottawa retained $1.56 million of Murray’s $6.25-million cap hit for that deal’s remaining two seasons — not four-plus like Binnington — and the Maple Leafs were desperate. As good as Binnington has been going back to last season’s playoffs, I don’t think there’s much of an option here for Armstrong, other than hoping that Binnington keeps it together and perhaps revisiting the topic in a couple of years. The Leafs will probably be looking for a goalie in 2025, too.

(Top photo of Colton Parayko: Mitchell Leff / Getty Images)





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